Pursuit of happiness proves elusive for study

Paul Mayne//Western NewsRebecca Pschibul, MA’19 (Counselling Psychology), sought out a universal key to unlock happiness with her recent international study.

There may be no single key to personal happiness, but it doesn’t hurt to be healthy, wealthy and like where you live. While those findings may make some people happy, others find happiness in different ways – and that is still something to smile about, according to researchers.

“We seem to expect that happiness is this one big thing and we need it all the time. We think if we’re not happy there’s something wrong with us – that bad emotions are bad and we need to get rid of them,” explained Rebecca Pschibul, MA’19 (Counselling Psychology).

“We, in fact, don’t have to be happy all the time. It’s not even possible to be happy all the time.”

Pschibul, along with University of Windsor Psychology professor Kenneth Cramer, recently asked people across the globe about their personal happiness, all in search of commonalities – a ‘key to happiness,’ if you will.

Drawing from cities across North America, Asia and Europe, the researchers looked at satisfaction with various elements of city life, including economics, culture and education, income, safety, living conditions, city administration, health, city pride and self-reported levels of happiness.

Perhaps sadly, they determined no universal key to happiness actually exists. However, the greatest common predictor was health, with pride in one’s city second and household income third.

Those findings are still telling, researchers stressed.

“How does your city affect your happiness?” asked Pschibul, who conducted the study while completing her master’s degree. “It makes sense because if you’re living in London, and you’re happy with the safety, government and experience of living here, then you are happy. If you think of Syria, where do they find their happiness?”

The researchers also tested stereotypes around happiness, such as ‘money makes you happy’ and ‘religion makes you happy.’

“Happiness is a very fleeting construct. You can be really happy if you win the lottery, but that state of happiness is not going to last. It will fade,” Pschibul said. “We found social factors of happiness were stronger predictors than something like religion which, I suppose, you could say has a sort of social aspect to it.”

Happiness is a complex, moving target, she added. If it’s just wealth, for instance, that is an easy fix. But it is an array of factors playing together.

“It’s challenging because of the assumption of what happiness really means. If we had a key to happiness, then what would happiness even mean, because we all had it,” she said. “We would adjust to that level of happiness and then we no longer have happiness because that level is no longer good enough.

“It’s subjective thing, even the meaning in our words. I could say happiness is associated with a memory or an experience, and for you it would be completely different.”

Pschibul also found age was also a variable. Old-age happiness declines a bit, but there are things that buffer it, such having enough money, volunteer opportunities and social engagement, and overall health.

Rather than attempting to find a one-size-fits-all solution across the globe, Pschibul said the study reveals a greater understanding of the relevant elements that could be used to promote greater quality of urban life.

“This could influence policy when it comes to planning for urban centres,” she said. “If we (city) have those components that people care about like health, income, opportunities in the city for socializing, it’s something policy-makers can tap into top learn how they can make their city more livable and more desirable for people to stay and be happy.”

While there is no magic pill for happiness, Pschibul does recommend more of a focus of the good.

“A lot of times we pay more attention to the negatives in our lives – that is actually a bias within us that’s completely normal. We remember them and they are always going to stand out more,” she said. “If we take moments to be more present in our lives, and to check in with the things we might be grateful for, or things that are going well for us, it would help us balance out that negative bias.”

The findings were published in the aptly named International Journal of Happiness and Development.